Beside the seaside: Blackpool and national biography
By Sue Arthur
Memories of your summer holiday may be fading, but the latest update of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography seeks to rekindle the summer—or at least summers past—with one of the new additions from its latest update, published today. For forty years Reginald Dixon (1904-1985) played the Wurlitzer at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, turning a former cinema organist into a recording star, known worldwide for his signature tune, ‘I do like to be beside the seaside.’ Here Dixon’s biographer, Sue Arthur, describes the man who became ‘Mr Blackpool’, and the interwar resort he helped to make a national attraction.
Blackpool 1930. In the Victorian splendour of the Tower Ballroom, a young cinema organist Reginald Dixon was beginning his broadcasting career at the keyboard of a state-of-the-art Wurlitzer organ. Blackpool Tower, then Britain’s tallest building designed by the local architects James Maxwell and Charles Tuke, had opened to great acclaim in 1894. Under its 519 feet of steel and wrought iron stood a range of entertainment venues, including a circus, an aquarium and a ballroom. Whilst preserving its flamboyant interiors, the tower’s directors were keen to move with the times and meet the demands of the millions who visited Blackpool each year. The American Wurlitzer organ was the first to be installed in a ballroom in Britain, and Dixon was charged with making the new organ as popular as live bands for dancing. For him it was an opportunity to escape the cinema, where talking pictures were rapidly replacing silent films, and where demand for musicians was declining rapidly. Indeed, Blackpool had converted all of its cinemas to sound by early 1930, ahead of the national trend—a sign of the resort’s commitment to providing the latest and best in entertainment for the growing waves of holidaymakers.
Given a year to make the Wurlitzer a crowd pleaser, Dixon exceeded all expectations. From the 1930s, broadcasts of the Tower Wurlitzer were relayed nationwide, while Dixon shared the ballroom’s stage with the most popular dance bands of the time. Jack Hylton and Geraldo were among the musicians who regularly visited Blackpool, and their radio popularity ensured packed theatres and ballrooms wherever they appeared. Other celebrity performers included the Lancastrians George Formby and Gracie Fields, who guaranteed a twice nightly sell-out show in the busy summer season. For Whitsun 1934, Fields was in the resort to make the Basil Dean film ‘Sing As We Go’, scripted by J.B. Priestley. The film captures the frenetic energy of Blackpool at holiday time and includes footage of Fields in the Tower’s ballroom packed with dancers and spectators. The need to make the Wurlitzer heard at the back of this dense crowd led Dixon to develop his own distinctive ‘bouncy’ style which transmitted the beat of the music effectively. This ‘Blackpool style’ of playing proved popular with radio audiences and made Dixon a celebrity for whom ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ (composed in 1909) became a fitting signature tune.
To millions of British listeners Reginald Dixon was ‘Mr Blackpool’. And yet in many ways this dapper, quietly spoken Yorkshireman was at odds with Blackpool’s famously bold and brash image. The resort was unquestionably racy and risqué. Newspaper headlines from the 1930s were as likely to feature Harold Davidson, the scandalous rector of Stiffkey in a barrel on the Golden Mile—or efforts by composer Lawrence Wright to bring high-brow art to low-brow Blackpool (while making women faint with his exhibition of Epstein’s nude statue of Adam)—as they were stories of family man Reginald Dixon. Blackpool, of course, was all this and more. Noted for ‘fresh air and fun,’ its ability to entertain the masses became legendary. And whether this meant opening the Tower Buildings at 4am to feed arrivals off the first trains of the day; extending the summer season by covering the promenade with illuminations; or investing in the country’s only ballroom Wurlitzer, then Blackpool did what it took to retain its crown as Britain’s most popular resort.
As well as Reginald Dixon, the latest update of the Oxford DNB includes the story of James Maxwell and Charles Tuke, architects of Blackpool Tower on which construction work began 120 years ago this month. Maxwell and Tuke appear in a set of new biographies of modern British architects, from the late Victorian to the late-twentieth century.
Sue Arthur is a doctoral student at Leeds Metropolitan University, studying the entertainment history of Blackpool in the 1930s. A Blackpool resident, she is a trustee director of Blackpool Grand theatre.